The stock market wasn’t the only key financial measure that rebounded in 2003 after years of decline. For the first time since 2000, overall merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the U.S. increased last year. Domestic deal volume rose 14.7% from the prior year, according to Thomson Financial, with many experts, such as Paul Gibbs, head of M&A Research at J.P. Morgan, expecting another 15%-20% growth in deals in 2004.
The registered investment advisor (RIA) marketplace has also shown signs of a robust consolidation trend in the last few years. Harris Bank’s acquisition of the leading RIA firm Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros and Blayney (SBSB) is just one example of this activity, as more independent advisory firms consider their future. Sure enough, in AdvisorBenchmarking’s survey of 378 RIA firms in March 2003, a growing number of advisors indicated their intent to buy another practice, sell their own, or merge with others during the year.
Whether these sentiments will result in more M&A activities in 2004 remains to be seen; our next two surveys–which will occur in the first half of the year–should provide some answers.
Anecdotal evidence gleaned from focus group interviews of 38 firms in the fourth quarter of 2003 strongly suggests that RIAs are considering M&A more than ever. It should be noted that the market turnaround in the last three quarters has fostered a wait-and-see attitude among advisors whose rationale for buying or selling was fundamentally predicated on the dismal market conditions. Among other advisors, however, the urge to merge is still strong, especially for those who view M&A as a way to add new wealth management services and expertise to their firms. Further, the FP Transitions Index (an index gauging various aspects of financial advisors’ M&A activities) showed a 12% increase in the buyers-to-sellers ratio for the 12 months ending November 2003. This continued strong demand from buyers and the relative shortage of sellers is fueling the consolidation trend.
With strong indications that mergers and acquisitions are not waning in 2004, it’s critical for advisors to understand the forces driving these activities so they can make more informed decisions regarding current or future deals at their own firms. Our research points to the following factors: